FashionAll The Rage

Cast in the role and a whirlwind to boot

CelebritiesEntertainmentMoviesFilm FestivalsAcademy AwardsMovie IndustryNancy O'Dell

Poolside at the Beverly Hilton, Rinko Kikuchi gathered up her quilted leather handbag, a mini-mechanical pencil and a small notebook. Then she waved a shy goodbye to "Access Hollywood" host Nancy O'Dell.

The Oscar-nominated actress, her translator, Tamaka Takefushi, and a Paramount Vantage award strategist huddled post-interview, as they usually do. Kikuchi wrote in the notebook the Japanese translation of O'Dell's question, for future reference: What are you going to wear to the Oscars? (Nice try, O'Dell. "It's a secret!")

Kikuchi started carrying the notebook to help navigate her life after "Babel" premiered in May at Cannes, and she was suddenly everywhere, as independent and eager to shock in some ways as Chieko, the deaf Tokyo teenager she'd played. Another girl with a notebook and not enough words to communicate what was going on behind her eyes.

Full of translations for English phrases thrown at her over and over, it became her Berlitz language course, her "Lonely Planet" guide and a de facto diary in one.

That morning, before the nominees' lunch, she had written in her wispy Japanese script: Oscar Lunch Party.

Before her broadcast interviews with O'Dell and others, she had worked the Oscar nominee press line, posed in front of a giant Oscar, answered questions in an Oscar press room, eaten lunch with 139 of her fellow nominees, posed for a group photo, then signed autographs in the hotel lobby.

Now Kikuchi, 26, craved a cigarette and a Diet Coke, but she still had CNN, Associated Press, Leonard Maltin and a local news interview before heading to Glendale for a round of evening news appearances. Even as a dark horse, she's a much in demand, chic symbol of a globalizing Hollywood.

So she stood and concentrated on teaching herself English, which she has been doing by writing out new responses to familiar showbiz koans. In a nightly ritual, Takefushi recites the day's questions from the notebook as if she were an American newscaster while Kikuchi tries her best to answer in English. Occasionally they swap roles.

Kikuchi gave a preview of the evening's performance. "Hi!!!!!!! How are you?????? Congratulations!!!!!!! You NOMINATED!!!!!!!"

Takefushi, who is a decade older than Kikuchi and befriended the actress in the "Babel" production offices in Tokyo where she worked as a production assistant, offered a professional interpretation.

"Most of the hosts and interviewers on these shows are just really hyper and have so much energy," Takefushi said. "She gets so overwhelmed by them. No matter how much she's prepared to speak in English, they come in and say, 'Hi, Rinko!!!!!' and she totally blacks out."

A small, husky-voiced woman wearing an enormous headset summoned Kikuchi to a corner broadcast tent. "Go in, go in!" Kikuchi peeked between the curtains and saw Maltin interviewing "Babel" director Alejandro González Iñárritu. She hesitated. "Go in, surprise him! Go in!" the woman insisted.

Maltin asked his crew what was going on. González Iñárritu, spying an embarrassed Kikuchi, hugged her, then guided her to a seat next to him. The three made small talk while the camera rolled.

As the conversation ground to a halt, Maltin gestured to a production assistant, who appeared with two large orange boxes. Inside they found digital cameras and personalized M&Ms.

"Oh, thanks. My kids will like these," González Iñárritu said.

"Wow, wow, wow, WOW!" Kikuchi said, lighting up like a vending machine on a dark night in Roppongi.

Interviews momentarily completed, the actress clomped over to an orange couch, lighted up a cigarette and enthusiastically inspected her new camera. (A consumer electronics epicure, tucked in her purse was a new Nokia E61, a top-of-the-line Japanese-language BlackBerry).

When she determined the camera was worth what she had paid for it she turned to her M&Ms. She looked a little weary.

When the "Babel" promotional blitz kicked off at Cannes, Kikuchi appeared to be a vision of the perfect leading lady for some maverick director: She modeled a dove-gray kimono, shaved eyebrows and over-dyed orange hair that jutted out like the titanium wings of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In early fall, having picked up the scent of a fresh face on the verge of hundreds of red carpets, the brand managers at Chanel called Kikuchi.

Given the keys to Coco's castle, the actress — who had shown up for events looking like a punk Corpse Bride in tortured tufts of hair — soon metamorphosed into a Chanel poster girl in long, blond, Jessica Simpson-like extensions.

But if Kikuchi has been wrapped in Chanel logos most of the season, her taste for the unusual can still be seen in her picks from the outer edges of Chanel's boutique and couture lines.

For a morning press appearance at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, she wore a white damask suit emblazoned with Chanel logos reminiscent of a loose body cast doodled on by a sugar-high Girl Scout troop. Her black heels were topped with short, white leg warmers easily confused with underwear bagging around her ankles.

Kikuchi was roundly razzed by the fashion police at the Golden Globes for her choice of a delicate lavender puff-ball gown. The GoFugYourself fashion blog dubbed it the "dust bunny dress." Online haters chimed in, coining it the "pompom bomb" and "the hanging shower sponge."

"She only picks what she likes," Takefushi said. "She feels that clothing shows who you are and what fits your emotions at the time. Her two favorite designers are Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld and Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquieme."

"Ghesqui-ERE," Kikuchi said, firmly correcting her translator.

Asked what it's like having her hair and makeup done constantly, Kikuchi leaned into the tape recorder and enthused: "Arigato, Paramount Vantage!"

Sounding a little bored and out of sync with her charge, Takefushi explained that Kikuchi found her hair guy on an Annie Leibovitz shoot for Vanity Fair. Paramount Vantage foots her hair and makeup bills. Clearly this is one of the most-referred-to topics in Kikuchi's notebook.

Eyes unfocused, Kikuchi picked at the tape on the star-shaped Lucite M&M container. Since September she's showed up for hundreds of appearances in cities, including Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, London, Palm Springs and Marrakech, Morocco. "It's a little bit strange," she said in perfect English.

Takefushi went off on a polite but serious rant. "The more, the better. More press, more interviews, more people to shake hands with, more people to greet, more, more, more. She can't even keep track of who she met yesterday. She's normally trying to put a lot of thoughts and genuine spirit into everybody or every situation she comes across, but she hasn't been able to do that."

Kikuchi interrupted Takefushi. They conferred for a moment.

"Rinko wants me to ask if it's common for actors to do this much promotional talking about a film role," Takefushi said. "She's been wondering this whole time if this is something everybody has to go through. If you're an actor, you want to act. She thought she would only be acting all the time. That's her profession, right?"

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